By Marshall Scott
So there I was, today, looking in at one of the Episcopal blogs -- one of THOSE blogs. You know the type: issues are raised by blog owners and moderators, who do have a clear position, but who are themselves relatively orderly and polite. Then, extensive comments are posted, most by folks who agree with the owners and moderators; some by folks who agree intemperately; and a few by folks who are, well, virulent. I do visit such sites, of more than one position, and some more than others; but they exist across the spectrum of our current Episcopal and Anglican disagreements.
And for each of those sites there are a few respondents who don’t fit the mold. They may hold the “other” position, or they may simply want to play [angel’s or devil’s] advocate. And among them there are gadflies. Gadflies are usually civil (and uncivil gadflies usually get moderated out), but are always both consistent and persistent. They are convicted of the rightness of their respective causes, principles, and authorities. They assert much more than they reason, however reasonable they perceive themselves to be. They are happy, or at least determined, to stand as Daniel in the lions’ den in order to proclaim their positions. They delight in taking on all comers. They find moral satisfaction in being challenged, and even more in being attacked; for blessed are they indeed if they “suffer for the sake of the Gospel.”
And, predictably enough, it does indeed become a den, although whether of lions, foxes, or adders is not always clear. A gadfly is inevitably successful in generating not simply challenge and discussion, but also an attack. Shortly some few of the regulars on the site fall into intemperate and uncivil posts, largely of thinly veiled (if veiled at all) ad hominem attacks. There are those, of course, who seek to discuss and to argue logically and civilly; but they can be drowned out by the volume if not the number of the more personal, less temperate responses. And those less temperate responses are less likely to be moderated away, because the moderator is so conscious of the suffering that has led the responder to speak truth, however intemperately.
So, there I was today, looking at one of those Episcopal blogs, and I was struck suddenly by my favorite verses from Proverbs:
 Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
 Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
(Proverbs 26:4-5, RSV)
I looked at how the discussion had descended into diatribe and distraction, and I suddenly wondered what I was to do. Should I put my two cents in, trying to reason against the assertions of the gadfly? If I did, would I be associating myself with the intemperance of the intemperate responders? Should I refrain, and allow both the assertions of the gadfly and the virulence of the intemperate to stand unchallenged for both had gone beyond reason? What to do?
I spent Saturday of Labor Day Weekend in the midst of a cultural experience. Specifically, I attended my first feis, my first Irish dancing competition. My niece made her first parent-less trip to come and compete. Family members outnumbered dancers in the room, but they faded from view, overwhelmed by the colorful riot of dancing dresses. They showed every color in the crayon box (although there is surprisingly little green and, less surprisingly, even less orange), decorated as they were with shapes and patterns that once showed family and tribe and allegiance.
In a way, the current Episcopal and Anglican discussions have all the ordered chaos of a feis: within the parameters of the larger event there is the dull mutter of the crowded room, the mingling of hundreds of conversations, until someone calls a tune. Then, for a period there is great focused interest, as most in the room watch the competitors doing their very best to outdo one another in optimizing the balance of authentic choreography, competent performance, and that little bit of added presentation that might hold the attention of the judge. After that there is applause for all, or at least for one’s own; and impatient waiting to see who has outdone whom; and a return to the dull mutter. There will, of course, be some ranking at the end, and some competitors will be thrilled and some disappointed, and their respective families with them. But most present simply want to have danced well, and to have heard their efforts appreciated.
In parallel, we who want to take our own places in this discussion, have opportunities in the blogosphere (and elsewhere, certainly) to share our reflections and to see the reflections of others. At our best, we’re also trying to optimize a balance of authenticity, competence, and that little bit of added presentation that we hope will allow us to stand out a bit. Most of the time as a common enterprise I think we manage relatively well; but sometimes it isn’t any prettier for us than for the poor, unprepared dancer. And in all those situations, there are the colors and patterns of opinion that claim family and tribe and allegiance. It is in just those circumstances that we need to think about the passage from Proverbs: whether our participation will challenge foolishness, or simply contribute to it.
It’s September; and there are those who have seen events of this September, and of the Autumn to follow, as critical, literally as moments of crisis. There is much talk of deadlines and decisions, of imposition and resistance, of the standing and falling of many in Zion. Because I continue to think these are struggles for identity (and I do think it’s about identity, with such issues as sexual morality and Biblical authority and historical precedent being discriminators within the identities at issue), they’re all the more liable to be personal, ad hominem responses. I think Episcopal Café is one place that has worked hard to maintain discourse instead of dissonance; and while most of us who write here would be considered “progressive,” we have all sought to offer our best, and to offer the best of the Episcopal Church as we see it.
But out there in the rest of the blogosphere, on our own blogs and in responding to the blogs of others, I think we need to reflect on Proverbs. We believe the voices of the Net are meaningful and in some sense representative in Episcopal and Anglican discussions. We believe them part of the conversation, along with sermons and official statements and press releases. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be putting our own view out, and we wouldn’t be reading and responding to the voices of others. As we do so, let’s think carefully, and respond appropriately. The lessons from Proverbs should give us all pause; and if they don’t, there is always that other proverb: “Better to be silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”
The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.